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STAGE REVIEW : Style Over Substance, but Who Cares?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe it helps to be a romantic to love “Grand Hotel.”

Call me a romantic.

“Grand Hotel,” a San Diego Playgoers presentation of the Broadway touring show, is a grand musical in grand style. Sweeping in at a cost of $5 million, it soars with a talented cast, glittery dance numbers, a gilded-and-chandeliered set, lush, smoky lighting and those oh-so-right costumes. Its mission: to weave interlocking stories of guests passing through the most expensive hotel in Germany in 1928.

The show, which won five Tony awards after it opened on Broadway 21 months ago, plays through Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

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“Grand Hotel” has been faulted by some critics for its shameless style-over-substance approach. Director and choreographer Tommy Tune, a nine-time Tony winner, who picked up two of the awards for “Grand Hotel,” is the ace behind the razzle-dazzle sleight-of-hand, which, by the end of the evening, leaves the senses mesmerized.

“Grand Hotel” does harbor irritating limitations: Few of the songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest (with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) are truly memorable. And one can imagine wicked parodies of the Luther Davis story (based on the Vicki Baum novel) about the aging ballerina, the penniless-but-noble nobleman, the secretary who yearns to be a starlet and the endless, if breathless, look-at-me song-and-dance numbers.

Despite its tendency toward soap opera, however, the story does have a magnetic appeal. Although one may yearn for more depth and more clearly defined issues, this portrait of pre-Nazi Germany leaves you with something to think about, almost in spite of itself. Like an upper-crust version of “Cabaret,” it presses your nose against the glass, from where you can see the last desperate dances of the rich and famous before the deluge of the Nazi era that is just around the corner.

The story touches on anti-Semitism by showing the hotel management’s begrudging reception of Otto Kringelein (Mark Baker), a dying Jewish accountant who wishes to spend his final days in the luxury of the Grand so he can see just what he’s been missing. And the play speaks as well to the anger and frustration of the masses, who starved while the rich got in their last little dances.

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The central and most romantic of the stories involves the fading ballerina, Grushinskaya (Liliane Montevecchi), and the penniless Baron Felix von Gaigern (Brent Barrett), who fall in love after she surprises him in the act of trying to steal her jewelry to pay his creditors.

Thanks to Montevecchi, who fleshes out her character brilliantly with a complex mixture of fear, charm and girlish hope, and to the suave and romantic baron as played by Barrett, the most affecting song here is their romantic duet, “Love Can’t Happen.”

But the weakest link in the story is also the baron, whose job it is to link every other thread in the tapestry. The too-noble-to-be-true fellow doesn’t exhibit the slightest hint of prejudice as he defends the Jewish accountant’s right to be a guest in this “grand” hotel.

The dying Kringelein--an apt metaphor for the ticking time bomb that befell all Jews then in Germany--deserves more dignity and weight than he gets in Baker’s semi-comic interpretation. The flat depiction of the ballerina’s slavishly devoted assistant, Raffaela, by Debbie de Coudreaux, also doesn’t work.

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But Tune’s choreography never disappoints. He’s achieved a magnificent, swirling mix of styles, blending box step with Charleston, and even with classical, contemporary and jazz. Dance suffuses this work, segueing between the numbers with a shadowy couple dancing in different costumes according to the mood, sometimes striking a melancholy pose, sometimes shooting like liquid fire across the stage.

Tony Walton’s set gets the towering yet confining elegance of the hotel just right--with empty chairs piled up on the second story suggesting the emptiness left by the passing of these and other lives. Santo Loquasto’s costumes are consistently on target, Jules Fisher’s swift and creative lighting changes take us through 20 scenes without needing a single set change, and Otts Munderloh’s sound design is strong and full.

In the end, the show provides for the audience what Kringelein wants from the hotel: a banquet for the senses.

Although one might wish for deeper meaning from this production, one could not wish for anything grander.

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“GRAND HOTEL”

By Luther Davis, adapted from the novel “Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum. Songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Director and choreographer is Tommy Tune. Set design by Tony Walton. Costumes by Santo Loquasto. Lighting by Jules Fisher. Sound by Otts Munderloh. With Liliane Montevecchi, Brent Barrett, Mark Baker, Debbie de Coudreaux, Erick Devine, David Dollase, Susan Wood, Dirk Lumbard, Edmund Lyndeck, Bernie Passeltiner, Arte Phillips, Victoria Regan, David Rogers, Martin van Treuren and K. C. Wilson. At 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ends Sunday. At the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St. 236-6510 or 278-TIXS.


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